The issue of marriage equality will be decided by Commonwealth Parliament in the next fortnight, first in the Senate (from Monday 27 November) and then, assuming it clears the upper house, in the House of Representatives (from Monday 4 December).
The ‘starting point’, problematic though it may be, is Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. Although what this legislation looks like by the end of this process remains unpredictable.
That’s because a wide variety of Coalition MPs are likely to put forward an even more diverse range of amendments. In this post I will discuss just one, already foreshadowed by Senator George Brandis: to provide all civil celebrants with the ability to discriminate on the basis of their personal religious or conscientious beliefs.[i]
I do so because, at this stage, this amendment seems to have a better chance of being successful – in part because of who is proposing it (the Attorney-General, a supposed ‘moderate’ within the Government) and also because it is marginally less extreme than some of the other changes flagged by people like James Paterson, Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton.
I don’t, however, support Senator Brandis’ amendment, for the following reasons:
- Civil wedding ceremonies are not religious. Indeed they were explicitly created as an alternative to religious ceremonies – and are now a very popular alternative, accounting for 3-in-4 weddings in Australia in 2015. If the wedding itself is not religious, surely the religious beliefs of the person officiating it are irrelevant.
- The ability to discriminate does not currently exist. There are a wide range of religious beliefs around marriage, including people who don’t support marriages between people of different faiths, while others don’t believe in divorce and remarriage. And yet, civil celebrants do not enjoy a special privilege to discriminate for these reasons. That it is being contemplated now, when LGBTI Australians might finally be able to wed, reveals that such an amendment is fundamentally homophobic.
- Civil celebrants are performing a duty on behalf of the state. Only people who are formally registered are given the legal authority to officiate marriage ceremonies – their role is regulated by, and delegated by, the Commonwealth Government. If the Government is not able to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then nor should people who are fulfilling a secular function on its behalf.
Some people do not accept this characterisation, instead asserting civil celebrants are more akin to small business owners. But even on this theoretical foundation, there is absolutely no basis to provide them with special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI couples (or any other couples for that matter):
- Commercial businesses should not be able to discriminate on the basis of personal religious or conscientious beliefs. They cannot be allowed to hang signs in their windows – real, or online – saying ‘no gays allowed’. In 2017, it feels strange to actually have to put that down in black and white, but it is the inevitable consequence of Senator Brandis’ proposal. And others within the Turnbull Government would go even further (with Kevin Andrews arguing Jewish bakers should be able to refuse Muslim customers, and vice versa).
- If civil celebrants are allowed to discriminate, it is difficult to withhold this privilege from other wedding-related businesses. While some claim civil celebrants play such a central role in weddings they alone should be able to discriminate, philosophically it is hard to distinguish their position from others closely involved in the same ceremonies (including photographers, wedding venue-providers and even florists). If the former is permitted to reject couples on the basis of personal prejudice, why not the latter? By opening the door to civil celebrants, we may end up inadvertently allowing plenty of others to walk through – when all should be kept outside.
- Allowing civil celebrants to discriminate creates a terrible precedent for anti-discrimination law in Australia. Currently, the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act, and most state and territory anti-discrimination laws, only permit religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people. They do not provide the same special privileges to individuals. The Australian Christian Lobby desperately wants an individual ‘freedom to discriminate’ against people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. By granting this ability to civil celebrants in the Marriage Act, a change that may seem small to many, we would actually be handing Lyle Shelton a large victory, and an invaluable tool in his ongoing campaign against LGBTI equality.
For all of these reasons, I think that anyone who supports genuine marriage equality – including the LGBTI community, our families, friends and allies, and the 61.6% of the population who voted Yes – should say ‘I don’t’ to religious exceptions for civil celebrants.
It would, however, be remiss of me not to address an argument that is commonly used to support such special privileges, one that is advanced even by some within the LGBTI community itself. That is the view that ‘why would couples want to be married by someone who disagrees with their relationship?’
The answer, of course, is that the vast majority of couples do not (although some, especially in rural and regional areas, may have few other options).
But, with all due respect to the people making this case, so what? That response doesn’t actually deal with the substantive issue at hand, and completely misunderstands the essential role of anti-discrimination law.
To see why, let’s apply the same question to other scenarios: Why would anyone want the florist for their wedding to be prejudiced against LGBTI people? The (now clichéd) baker? The wedding venue-provider?
Why would an LGBTI couple want to spend their honeymoon at a hotel where the proprietor disagrees with their relationship? Or to celebrate their anniversary at a restaurant whose owner is homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic?
Why would a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex employee want to work for an anti-LGBTI employer?
The answer, again, is that most LGBTI people do not want to find themselves in any of these circumstances. But, for a variety of reasons (including the impact of historical discrimination, ongoing homophobic attitudes in society-at-large, and differences in power and privilege) plenty of people do – and that is the reason we have anti-discrimination laws in the first place.
The Sex Discrimination Act, and its state and territory equivalents, operate to protect vulnerable groups against adverse treatment, wherever it occurs: the provision of goods and services, education, employment and other areas of public life. That obviously covers civil celebrants offering their services to the public, too.
In amending the Marriage Act, we should not support anything that undermines these vital anti-discrimination protections. By conceding that discrimination by civil celebrants should be allowed, by effectively ‘picking and choosing’ when anti-LGBTI prejudice is made lawful, we would be doing exactly that.
Once this broader principle of anti-discrimination has been sacrificed, our opponents will stake their claims for ever-widening ‘freedoms to discriminate’. Indeed, Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm has already circulated amendments to the Smith Bill that would make it entirely legal to discriminate against LGBTI couples in providing goods, services or facilities in relation to:
“(a) the solemnisation of a marriage under the Marriage Act 1961; or
(b) the preparation for, or celebration of, such a marriage; or
(c) the preparation for, or celebration of, events associated with such a marriage, including:
(i) an event announcing or celebrating the engagement of the parties to be married; and
(ii) an event celebrating the anniversary of the marriage.”
No doubt other conservative MPs and Senators will move their own amendments in the course of parliamentary debate, some perhaps more expansive, and even worse, than these.
They must, of course, be rejected – for exactly the same reasons that we must reject Senator Brandis’ amendment concerning civil celebrants. Because lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians should not be discriminated against in any area of public life. No exceptions.
If you agree, please take two minutes to write to Commonwealth MPs and Senators to let them know that #equalmeansequal, and that there should be ‘No compromise on equality’ (click here).
One final point before I conclude. By now, I have hopefully convinced you to say ‘I don’t’ to Senator Brandis’ amendment to create religious exceptions for civil celebrants.
If that is the case, then logically you should also say ‘I don’t’ to the Smith Bill itself – because all of the above arguments can also be made against sub-section 39DD(2), which would allow existing civil celebrants to nominate to become ‘religious marriage celebrants’, and discriminate against LGBTI couples, based on nothing more than their personal religious beliefs.
That’s why I and others have argued passionately that the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, as it currently stands, does not offer genuine marriage equality. And why we should be pressuring Labor, the Greens and anyone else who claims to support LGBTI equality to amend that legislation to remove such discriminatory provisions.
I guess we’ll all find out in the coming fortnight how real their commitment to equality actually is.
[i] Interestingly, Senator Brandis is doing so even though civil celebrants themselves do no support such an amendment. As reported this week in the Sydney Morning Herald , Dorothy Harrison, the chair of the Coalition of Celebrant Associations, said: “We don’t approve of exemptions. We feel that if that’s the law of the country, then that’s what you do. We have discrimination laws and we have to live by them.”